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Robert Stephenson and Company: 200th Anniversary

Volume 735: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2023

I will call Chi Onwurah to move the motion and will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up as this is only a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the potential merits of Government support for the 200th anniversary of Robert Stephenson and Company, Newcastle.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a chartered engineer.

I am very proud to have secured this debate to celebrate the fact that my constituency, Newcastle upon Tyne Central, is home to the world’s first locomotive factory. Just 100 yards from Newcastle Central station stands the very shed where Robert Stephenson and Company developed the key enabling technology of the industrial revolution, transforming the physical, economic and social landscape of the United Kingdom and, indeed, countries around the world.

In the bicentenary year of the founding of the factory, which improved the lives of generation upon generation, I want to understand what steps the Government are taking to commemorate it, and to set out the importance of celebrating our industrial heritage so that we can inspire a new generation of industrial innovators to solve the great challenges of our age.

George Stephenson was born into poverty in 1781 and had no formal education until the age of 18, but he died a man of worldwide renown. In 1823, with two local industrialists, Edward Pease and Michael Longridge, and his son Robert, he set up Robert Stephenson and Company. Robert was only 20 at the time but already a notable engineer in his own right, and he built on his father’s work. He even became a Tory MP representing Whitby, so I hope that Robert Stephenson and Company will receive cross-party celebration.

When the factory opened, 90% of the global population lived in abject poverty and infant mortality was 40%. Horses to carry Newcastle’s famous coal were scarce and colliery owners sought better ways to transport it across the country. It was by responding to that challenge that George Stephenson earned his title as the father of the railways. The Stephensons’ factory was the world’s first works to specialise in the construction of locomotives. It transformed the coal industry, gave birth to public transport by initiating the first ever passenger railway, and was the literal engine of the industrial revolution.

The works also helped to bring about two of the country’s greatest railway structures: Newcastle Central station, widely accepted as one of the country’s finest stations, and the High Level bridge, the world’s first combined rail and road bridge. That is only a fraction of Stephenson’s legacy: the truth is that every single person in this room has benefited from the Robert Stephenson and Company factory, and every country has felt the impact of the works.

One of the most important historical sites of the 19th century is now part of a redevelopment scheme called the Stephenson Quarter, which includes the Boiler Shop, a popular venue for music and food, finding new relevance in the vibrant cultural life of Newcastle. There is a plaque commemorating Locomotion No. 1 at the original works site, but there should be much more to commemorate it.

The first locomotive to be built at the works was named, imaginatively, Locomotion No. 1, which ran on the Stockton and Darlington railway. It was followed by Hope, Black Diamond and Diligence, and then by the famous Stephenson’s Rocket, the most advanced locomotive of its day. The designs proved to be the template for the next 150 years of locomotive construction in Britain and around the world. The factory built the first locomotives to run in America, Australia, France and Germany.

Knowing that the best locomotives were made in England, the US state of New Jersey ordered the John Bull all the way from Newcastle in 1831. It was last operated in 1981, which makes it the oldest operable steam locomotive in existence. Today, the John Bull is on proud display at the National Museum of American History, so it is no exaggeration to say that Newcastle’s industrial heritage belongs to the world.

Just 76 years after setting up shop, the factory had produced more than 3,000 locomotives and was selling to more than 60 countries. The world had become a smaller place. The first industrial revolution saw various labour-saving inventions that drove rises in output and production, but few had as much of an impact on our very way of life as the steam locomotive. Railways connected communities and made what was distant close, and in so doing altered the significance of space and time. New opportunities for travel gave birth to the work commute—we may not all be appreciative of that—Victorian seaside resorts and even the standardisation of time, because the need for standardised railway timetables drove local and national co-ordination and eventually gave rise to the international standard, the Greenwich meridian. There could not be a more striking symbol of the manner in which the innovations of Stephenson and Company ushered in modernity and united people across localities, regions and nations.

Of course, there was opposition at the time, particularly from the vested interests of horse and river power companies. It was said that cows would stop giving milk and hens would not lay eggs, that the locomotive would cause miscarriages in women and that its smoke would turn each day into a dark night. Those early examples of online harms—that is, on-railway-line harms—did not come to pass, but that is no excuse for the current Government’s failure to legislate for the harms of today’s transformative communications technology, the internet. The industrial revolution generated other harms, of course: exploitation, unsafe working conditions, child labour and poverty. In response, the labour movement, of which I am a proud member, grew to protect and promote the interests of ordinary working people.

In the north-east, we are immensely proud of our industrial heritage. Our region is not only the birthplace of the locomotive; our mines, mills and plants fostered many of the riches that flowed from the first—carbon-based—industrial revolution. As a nation, we take pride in the people who lived in our castles, but our history should also tell the story of working people: the mines where they toiled and the railways and bridges that they built. According to research from Historic England, 93% of people agree that local heritage raises their quality of life. Living close to historic buildings and places is associated with higher levels of self-reported health, higher levels of happiness and higher life satisfaction. There are museums in the north-east that celebrate our industrial heritage, not least the Discovery Museum, which is in my constituency and showcases world firsts such as Parsons’ Turbinia and Joseph Swan’s light bulb. I pay tribute to Arts Council England’s museum development programme for the north-east, which provides grants to help museums to remain a key part of all communities in the region.

How was the bicentenary of Robert Stephenson’s works celebrated? In my constituency, the Common Room, which is the home of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, held an exhibition to celebrate the life and achievements of Robert Stephenson. The Robert Stephenson Trust’s celebrations included a train-naming ceremony at Darlington. Newcastle City Council planned to celebrate with the launch of the Pattern Shop in what was the Stephenson works’ engine room, but the collapse of Tolent, the building company, put paid to that. What did the Government do? Will the Minister confirm that the amazing anniversary passed unnoticed by the Government? Were they perhaps distracted by the multiple changes of Prime Minister and Chancellor over the past 12 months?

I recently tabled parliamentary questions about preserving and celebrating our industrial heritage and received, rather surprisingly, quite a useful answer from the Minister for Media, Tourism and Creative Industries, but it focused very much on the preservation, not the celebration. It gave as an example of an asset worthy of preservation that listed marvel of engineering, Newcastle’s 19th-century swing bridge—the bridge that cannot swing anymore. Unfortunately, in response to previous written questions from me, Ministers have failed to take responsibility for preserving the swing bridge, saying that they expect to have ongoing discussions—whatever that means. Will this Minister say what role the Government have in the preservation and celebration of our industrial heritage and why Newcastle’s swing bridge and the Robert Stephenson works apparently do not qualify?

As I have said, celebrating our industrial heritage gives communities pride. That pride helps to inspire our young people into the industries of today and tomorrow—and under a Labour Government there will be industries of today and tomorrow. With our industrial strategy and green prosperity plan, we will reindustrialise the north-east with clean tech and green jobs, with wealth flowing directly back into the communities that those industries serve and cutting energy bills. This is about owning the future, setting missions to guide industry and facing up to the challenges that would otherwise overwhelm us.

Climate change is one of the greatest scientific and engineering problems that the world has ever known. We have built a world of technology based on fossil fuels—the Robert Stephenson works are an example of that—and now we need to re-engineer it and do that fast, or we will endanger the very civilisation that our technology created. Labour will more than double our onshore wind capacity, triple—

Order. May I remind the hon. Lady that she needs to stick quite tightly to the matter of Government support for the 200th anniversary of Robert Stephenson and Company?

I appreciate that, Ms Nokes. The reason why we need Government support for the Robert Stephenson celebrations is just what I am coming to.

Celebrating northern pioneers should be an opportunity to inspire younger generations, tackle the skills gap and diversify our STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—sector. Our country has a 175,000-person skills shortage in STEM, and the sector experiences a chronic lack of diversity at the same time. The Royal Academy of Engineering recognises that and is studying the important role of industrial heritage in education, economy and place. Historic England has found that participation in heritage programmes enables young people in industrial heartlands to claim ownership of their local areas and contribute towards their revitalisation. The celebration of the works site is, then, a key part of ensuring that we have the skills for the next industrial revolution. I would like to recognise the work of the ERA Foundation and, in particular, its director Tom Gordon in supporting this debate.

Will the Minister outline the Government’s plans for celebrating and commemorating the bicentenary year of the Robert Stephenson and Company works site? Will he outline what the Government have done to recognise and celebrate the north-east’s industrial heritage and the national industrial heritage? The Minister may mention the Great Exhibition of the North in 2018. It was a great exhibition and it was of the north, but can he set out what its industrial heritage legacy was and where we can find it? Can he demonstrate that he not only understands the significance of the legacy of the Stephenson works but will take steps to honour and preserve their heritage?

I note that the Department for Transport is answering this debate, rather than the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but will the Minister outline whether his Department has any plans to harness the great advantage of Newcastle’s industrial past and pioneers, such as George and Robert Stephenson, to inspire the next generation of north-east innovators, who are so needed to build on our strengths in so many of the areas relevant to the industries of the future, such as carbon capture and storage and green hydrogen?

Order. May I remind the hon. Member that I really do not want her to start straying into her own shadow portfolio, which would cause quite a lot of consternation in the Chair?

I am just concluding.

Speaking as the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, I know that the United Kingdom has huge industrial potential and an amazing industrial heritage. I want a Government who recognise the achievements of the past and put them in the service of the challenges of the future. Celebrating the Robert Stephenson works is one way of doing that; I would like to understand what the Government’s way of doing that is.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this important debate on the potential merits of Government support for the 200th anniversary of Robert Stephenson and Company. She rightly pointed out that two Departments could have answered the debate. I hope, for the reasons I will come to, that she will understand why it is the Department for Transport and the Rail Minister doing that, rather than the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Let me talk about Railway 200, because the thrust of the hon. Member’s points relate to that plan. As she stated, for nearly 200 years the railways have been the fabric of our nation and one of our most treasured public institutions, connecting people across the country and driving economic growth. The Government recognise the extraordinary contribution that the railways have made in all parts of the United Kingdom, and that the 200th anniversary is an important moment to mark and celebrate.

As such, I am delighted that the Department for Transport will support Railway 200. Led by Network Rail, Railway 200 is the railway industry’s plan for a year-long programme of events, partnerships and initiatives to celebrate the railway and its positive impact, and officials in the Department are working closely with Network Rail and the Great British Railways transition team to deliver that important series of events.

On rail in the north-east, 2025 marks the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington railway and, as the hon. Member mentioned, the world’s first steam-hauled passenger railway journey, pulled by Locomotion No. 1, between Stockton and Shildon via Darlington. The idea soon caught on, connecting people and businesses first across the country and then around the rest of the world. It powered innovation, created opportunities and later played a crucial role in wartime.

I have been excited to learn of the activities being planned in local places to celebrate the bicentenary, including by Newcastle City Council, Darlington Borough Council and Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council. I am pleased that the Government and their arm’s length bodies are already contributing to a range of projects in the north-east in advance of the 2025 celebrations.

I thank the Minister for his comments and support for the celebration of Railway 200, but the debate is specifically about Robert Stephenson and Company, which was founded in 1823, so the bicentenary is this year.

We are focused on the 200th year of the delivery of the railway. It is one of those matters where we get the title of the debate, think it through and think, “This is our opportunity to talk about what we are doing to mark 200 years of the railway.” Like me, the hon. Member referenced Locomotion No. 1, and that is the point I am addressing. Perhaps she could bear with me as I go through my speech, and if there are matters that she feels we have not addressed, we will of course respond to her accordingly.

I want to talk about what is going on in the north-east. Darlington was successful in a levelling-up bid in the most recent Budget, which included funding to upgrade the Darlington heritage centre. In 2019, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport invested £18.6 million in the National Railway Museum’s “Vision 2025” project through the cultural investment fund, which included a transformation of the National Railway Museum in York and the Locomotion museum in County Durham in good time for the celebrations.

With Government funding, Historic England established the Stockton and Darlington railway heritage action zone to rejuvenate and restore the 26-mile stretch of historical railway and realise its potential to become a major visitor destination in the build-up to the bicentenary. Likewise, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, an arm’s length body of DCMS, has awarded more than £3.2 million of funding to support a five-year project to develop the Darlington rail heritage quarter, which is delivering a programme of engagement activity. There are fantastic opportunities for MPs to get involved in bicentenary celebrations and capitalise on cultural events throughout the country. DCMS has offered to share contacts with interested MPs so they can find out more about what they can do in their constituencies.

With your approval, Ms Nokes, may I talk generally about the railway and the 200 years over which it has delivered?

Okay, Ms Nokes—we will do just that. Of course, I will be stopped if you feel I am going off track, as it were.

The focus of Railway 200 is growth and renewal. The growth of the railways can be described by projects—completed or under way—that help us to celebrate the past that the hon. Member spoke about so well. Last year, the Elizabeth line, a new railway linking east and west in the south-east, opened, and it could account for one rail journey six.

We are investing even more money to link east and west in the north. The trans-Pennine route upgrade will see the electrification of the line that links Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds and York, which will transform the line and bring more frequent, reliable, faster and greener trains from rebuilt stations with longer platforms. Once that is completed, it will form the basis for Northern Powerhouse Rail to be delivered.

Linking north to south we have our new high-speed rail project, High Speed 2, which will reduce the journey time from Manchester to London by almost an hour and give this country a high-speed rail spine, which we have lived without for too long. All those new railway lines will help us to deliver our commitment to decarbonise rail by 2050.

As for renewal, that cannot be completed overnight, but it is well under way. In his Bradshaw address in February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport set out his vision for rail: a customer-focused commercially-led industry with Great British Railways as the guiding mind for the sector. We have already delivered national flexi season tickets, with more than 700,000 sold so far, and we have rolled out single-leg pricing across the London North Eastern Railway network, going up to Newcastle and delivering simpler, more flexible tickets that are better value.

The title of the debate is “Robert Stephenson and Company: 200th Anniversary”, and we should be considering the merits of celebrating that anniversary. I am sorry if the Department did not realise that the anniversary is this year and that the debate should be about the company. Perhaps the Minister needs to spend more time in the north-east to get that established.

I am happy for the Minister to write to me to answer the question of what has been done to celebrate the anniversary of Robert Stephenson and Company. There are six months of the year left, and something could be done in that time. The merit of the anniversary is that it should be used to inspire our young people to take up careers in industry.

May I interject? I allowed the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is in charge of the debate, quite a lot of leeway, considering the title of the debate, and I have also allowed the Minister quite a lot of leeway. However, perhaps the Minister would like to focus tightly on Newcastle, and indeed the 200th anniversary of Robert Stephenson and Company. I have had enough of straying off the subject, from both Members.

I apologise, Ms Nokes. I love debates in which we can talk about the matters at hand. We of course roam around, which is absolutely right, but I will say that if hon. Members get in touch with me to say exactly what they want from the debate, regardless of political party, we will absolutely have that debate. I remind the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central that I have not once strayed off the subject of the railways, and I think it is fair to say that she gave us a good guided tour of industry in general. Perhaps I will just wrap up, shall I?

We look forward with great excitement to our anniversaries, particularly the industry’s 200th anniversary, which will be in 2025. This is our chance to show national pride in our railways and all they have delivered—not just for this country but around the world. I look forward also to working with the hon. Member with regard to her current celebration, about which we will write to her with more detail, and the even greater national celebrations in 2025.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.